Throughout the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates the five leading causes of life we have been exploring the last few weeks – connection, coherence, generativity & blessing, agency and hope. Near the end of his life Jesus offers what scholars call his farewell discourse. He teaches and empowers his disciples, offering words of encouragement. He tells them that he must leave them, and adds that those who believe in him, who have witnessed the works he has done, will not only do what he has done, but they will do EVEN GREATER works. How can that be possible?
They won’t walk on water or calm storms. They won’t restore the sight of a man born blind. They won’t turn water into wine, or do many of the other miracles Jesus did. And yet, the earthly ministry of Jesus was limited to a particular time in history and geographical space. His public ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, was about three years. His ministry was also limited in geographic scope. His mission could have died with his death. But it didn’t. Why is that? Because Jesus empowered his disciples and blessed them with a sense of agency and coherence. This is echoed in
Luke 9 -Jesus gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases. He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
The other thing Jesus did before he died was to give them a sense of deep connection – another one of the five leading causes of life. Jesus invites his followers to no longer be servants, but friends, who understand they must carry on his actions in the world after his death.
They are to become agents of change and possibility. And that is what happens – eventually. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples fearlessly preached the gospel. They found they were able to perform miraculous healings in Jesus’ name. They followed his example of teaching and healing, emanating love and compassion. They were empowered by the Spirit to say and do things they could have never imagined. They expressed agency.
Agency is the human capacity to choose, to effect change, to move towards life. In the book, Leading Causes of Life, Gunderson & Pray write:
Humans do – We go here or there, now or later, fast or slow; we lift, reach, touch, hold, dig, study, watch, fight, love, seek, build, invent, and make things. We do and thus we live. Sometimes all we have is this doing. Sometimes doing may be enough to keep us alive until the other Leading Causes of Life rise into the space created by our doing. Doing is a kind of thinking, for it embeds and expresses choice among options. Agency has the ability to transcend mere activity. Agency is an action, but it is also a gift when aligned with purpose or call.
Listen to one of the powerful stories of agency they tell in the book written 10 years ago.
When the Civil Rights movement hung by a slender thread its young leaders were baffled by storms of violence and political cynicism beyond what they had anticipated in their darkest imaginations. They argued strategy – whether to go back to violent streets, into the courts, back to churches, around the schools or withdraw until they figured it out. John Lewis – who was 23 years old at the time – said, “I’m marching.” Again they debated, wearing themselves out in analysis. The next morning, Lewis got up and marched. So did hundreds of others. It was all they could do at that moment, and so they did. Lewis was an agent in his own life; he expressed agency. He moved, chose, acted. That expression of agency created hope when there was none to be found. It will be remembered long after Lewis lays his body down. It connected people who had been shattered. It created the possibility of coherence where there was little left.
Hearing this story 10 years after this book was published, in the year of Civil Rights Icon Rep. John Lewis’ death, we can attest to the fact that his expression of agency is definitely remembered.
There are times in our lives where we feel defeated, or events occur where we experience a loss of agency, when choices are taken away from us. We are experiencing that this year with the pandemic for sure and especially now as cases are rising everywhere throughout the land, and Governor Inslee is about to announce additional measures and new restrictions to combat the virus. We can experience a loss of agency when we experience any transition or trauma or illness or loss, when the ground shifts underneath our feet. Our sense of agency is often taken away from us as we age, when we can no longer do things we used to do with ease, things we used to take for granted. In those moments what is important to remember is that we can always tap into the capacity to do something, to choose life.
In the great scheme of things, this is a small story, but I can testify to the power of agency, of moving toward life in the midst of feeling distressed and overwhelmed. Two months ago, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, I was devastated about the loss of this powerful woman who dedicated her life to advancing justice and equality under the law. While RBG expressed agency everyday of her life, in the midst of battling cancer, no less, I was momentarily paralyzed by thoughts of what her death would do to the balance of the Supreme Court, not to mention the loss of such a powerful voice of justice. I imagine I was not alone in those feelings on that stormy evening of 9/18, as the rain came down, with distant thunderclouds coming closer, with flashes of lightning in the sky. It may not have been the most prudent decision to get in my car and head to the church in the storm that evening in the dark, but I realized there was one thing I could do. I could change the readerboard to honor her life with one of her quotes:
‘Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.’
It is actually a quote about using our Agency, our voice.
Life may be incoherent; we may feel disconnected. Yet, God has infused in us the capability to “choose life” even when there is so much in our lives that threaten and overwhelm us, even when the odds are stacked against us. This quality of agency reminds us of the fundamental human capacity to seek & discover life, to choose to move toward life—even in the midst of, even in the face of death. Agency is about doing, even if it is just doing only what we can do in this moment – which doesn’t feel like much sometimes. But doing will keep us going until the other Leading Causes of Life bubble up.
Gunderson writes: I learned the language of agency when I was in South Africa – in the radical disconnection of apartheid, in the midst of catastrophe of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the incoherence of apartheid using religion against people. Even in that setting people made choices to move, to do. They worked, healed, resisted. All expressions of agency.
Life is a journey of struggles. Just like the virus, it does not discriminate. Mt. 5:45: It rains on the just and the unjust. We may be involved in situations we don’t believe we have the power to overcome. We may face challenges that make us feel as if life no longer makes sense, or we’ve lost sense of meaning.
Did you notice Don’s photo in the song Stuart sang, “MY Life is in You, Lord” of a beautiful flower growing out of a crack in what looks to be desolate earth? Have you ever noticed trees still growing when they are stuck between a rock and a hard place?
In the natural world, in God’s creation, there is evidence of life persisting in harsh environments, finding ways to adapt to their situation. It’s inspiring to believe there’s always a way around whatever challenge you face in life. Trees will grow on a rock, or out of a rock. When tree outgrow the nutrients a rock can supply, it might break through the rock and reach for the soil beneath the rock. Persistence and determination expressed in agency pays off. Literally growing where you are planted. Choosing life. Being resilient.
Agency is exercising one’s personal power to do or to act. Agency creates more agency, and generates the space for the other causes of life along the way. Leading causes of life generate the others – connection, coherence, blessing. Agency is a generative force that inevitably leads to the matter of call. It gives traction to three questions: “What am I to do with my life?” “What have I been called to do?” and “Am I doing it?”
When any of us perform an act of kindness to another person, when we offer hospitality to a stranger, when we work for justice and reform in our society, we are exercising agency and extending the works of Jesus. Let us exercise Agency as a Leading Cause of Life.
SCRIPTURE John 14:8-14 8 Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
John 15:12-1712 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Luke 9: 1-2 When Jesus had called the 12 together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases. He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.